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Thursday, October 13, 2005


On day two of my long journey from Guilin to Kunming, I find another internet cafe. This time I am in a town called Congjiang. Another town along a river side (jiang, by the way, means river). On one side of the river, and on one side of the bridge, there is, beyond the rocky bank of the shallow water, a strip of soft looking green grass running into a short hill which has been sectioned into several small squares and rectangles for crops. Beyond the crops, a cluster of dark brown wooden houses. Beyond the wooden houses, and on the other side of the bridge and the other side of the river, the 5-7 story traditional ugly bathroom tile buildings that are found all through China and Taiwan. This is pretty much another one road town, or really two, since there are buildings on both sides of the river. There are also mountains beyond the buildings on both sides.

The drive from Sanjiang was another exercise in patience and pain. Dust clouds and white puffs of gravel smoke again accompanied the drive, making opening the window an ill-advised choice. As the crowds of people ebbed and flowed (at times with at least ten people standing, and each of them with poles and pails and buckets and shopping in burlap sacks. More ducks, and chickens, and thankfully the driver deemed it, at last, too full to accomodate a man and his two pigs). It was a sweaty ride, and at 5 hours with no bathroom breaks, almost devastating. Of interest, though, were the minority women coming on and off the bus, Dong women, mostly, with black clothes highlighted by bright pink and turquoise stitching, their hair pulled up in intricate wraps. There faces, despite an occasional beatific smile, betrayed the daily hardships of their lives, and watching them struggle under the weight of heavy pails accross their backs, or lugging children around, it is no wonder that so many of them, already short, are hunched over as well.

Arriving in Congjiang, I booked a room for 50 RMB at a hotel across from the bus station. A bit pricier than yesterday, but a nice room. Again, the room has a bathroom, with a squat toilet, and as I showered after another long long walk today, I contemplated having a squat toilet in the same place as where you shower. On the one hand, it makes it easy and guilt free to pee while you shower. On the other hand, and which almost happened to me, there is a fear that the soap will drop and fall into the hole. I guess everything has an up and a downside.

As I said, I walked a lot today, about 18 KM I would guess, the first half up a mountain, the second half back down. More stunning scenery--terraced hills more beautiful than those yesterday, although the land seems a bit more parched. Taller mountains than yesterday as well. Today I had a chance to get onto some paths leading into the fields, and in doing so encountered some members of the Miao minority. I encountered more later, in a string of villages which are a tourist site of sorts, but which seems not yet to have caught one. [So, Miao is another term for Hmong (well, with a few qualifications, as the Wiki article points out). Interesting how this info connects with our travels in Laos.--ed.]

I will try to keep this short. First, most of the people wanted money for their pictures. I just have to throw that in there. A lot of children ran away from me, laughing. Other people just stared. Not a friendly stare, or an unfriendly stare. Just a stare. I entered the string of villages, all under the basic name of ba shao (I think), but each with its own name, on a dirt path before I had arrived at the spot on the main road which announces it as a special cultural location (meaning, that for an hour as I wandered the fields and watched women roll long swaths of black fabric against a ridiculous backdrop of curving and swooping yellow and green terraced fields and mountains, that I was unaware I was in a tourist destination. It was only when I came off the dirt paths and saw a sign in English pointing to a house where a 100 year old person lives did I realize where I was. This is beside the point, though).

Strolling through the village I felt like a stranger. Of course, in traveling to a foreign country, one is always going to be a stranger of sorts, but there are times when you enter a place so different from that which you are used to, and in which people stare at you because of those differences, that you really feel what it is to be a stranger in a strange land. Wooden houses spilling down the hillside, satellite dishes the only thing hinting at modernity. The women with black skirts rolled up to reveal deep brown, almost black almost gold legs, hardened by work in the fields. The black skirts complemented with black - what would you call this - like a sash across the chest, and a bright pink or yellow or other vivid color shirt underneath. Faces weather beaten or still fresh. Young children with requisite dirty faces. Young girls in black and pink doing homework while laughing and joking. Cows in the fields, chickens everywhere. Dogs, all white and identical, lazy and everywhere. Fat, pot bellied pigs, teats almost dragging on the ground. Hammers sounding. The smell of fresh cut wood (what a wonderful smell...I have not mentioned yet the abundance of pine trees in the area, which makes for a wonderful counterpoint to the bright yellow and green of the fields). Smoke.

After wondering through this village, I came to the main road and saw where I was. I walked across the road to another village, this one with more new houses going up, though not many. This means a stronger smell of wood. Standing high above the main, stone paved path running through the village, twenty-thirty foot high what would have to be called racks made of long thick logs on which the villagers hang glutinous rice to be dried. More bright clothes hangin from windows, drying. The legs on which the houses stand rising different heights to ensure a level house, providing shelter for snorting snuffling hogs. It was here that I felt a stranger again as a group of young girls ran at the sight of me, and then back, and then ran away again, all playfully. And I stood and watched them, checked out their math homeworks and such, and spoke their own dialect which left me totally in the dark, feeling exposed as the true outsider that I am.

Then a bit of a comical occurrence, after leaving that village. I came across two separate groups of students on the same field trip, from Liuzhou in Guangxi Province. They are on a field trip to get introduced to minority cultures, and in each case, when running into their groups, I had to pose for several photos. I was the attraction. Odd.

A bit more on the Miao. The men have wicked hair styles... shaved on the sides and back, the top grows long and then is wrapped into something like a cinnamon roll on the top, with the end hanging free like a pony tail on the top of the head. They wear black collarless shirts and loose pants and carry daggers. They live, when not being tourist sights, much as they have for the last 2000 years.

A few final things from the last two days, things I did not mention before. In Guilin, at night, watching the sunset over one of the rivers - sounds of a lone swimmer. A motor. Low voices on the water. A dog barking on the opposite shore. Scattered neon lights, isolated, casting long reflections in the water. A motorboat rushing, cutting through. And then, without warning, the bridge lighting blue neon, and the cluster of buildings near the bridge lighting as well. A low haze, still, to the right, where few lights disturbed the southeast Asian smoky hazy river ambience. This repeated in Sanjiang, but without all the neon, and the haze so much thicker. I did not know if it was a low fog like the kind you see in the mornings rising along River Road on the way to airport in Cincinnati or if it was dust settling, kicked up from the roads over the course of the day. With the low hills rising and falling into each other above the river banks, though, and with the orange red almost gone light of the sun, it was a scene like the photos you see of the Smoky Mountains sometime, except that here was a river and the mountains were not so high and it was Asia after all so the sounds were much more chaotic and in the end to compare the picture in from of my eyes at that moment to the Smoky Mountains may not have been the best idea.

So, with the help of my hotel's lao ban, I have a bit of a rough itinerary for the next two days, one which will require more bussing, more walking, and another night in Congjiang. This means I will probably be back at the keyboard tomorrow night to recount more encounters with some of China's minorities and the nature of the countryside. [I went looking for a link for "lao ban"--roughly translated, "old leader" or "respected boss"--but discovered an article on the Plain of Jars near Phonsavan. It's a good read...the cave referred to near Ban Ang was used during the Secret War as a munitions site.--ed.]


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